The All-Time Best Detroit Red Wings Free Agent Signing

Welcome to LWOS Hockey’s summer series. After the historic 2016 NHL Free Agency period, it’s a good time to look at the best free agent signing in the history of all 30 NHL franchises. Up next: The all-time best Detroit Red Wings free agent signing.

Make sure to check out the previous articles in our 2016 summer series here.

A Hit or Miss History

The Detroit Red Wings have had a hit-or-miss history with luring players to don the Winged Wheel from free agency. Recently, there have been many of the latter results. Center Stephen Weiss is the biggest disaster that comes to mind recently, having signed a five-year, $24.5 million contract only to play in 78 games scoring 11 goals and 28 points before getting bought out last summer.

There was the Zach PariseRyan Suter summer before, when the team signed forwards Mikael Samuelsson (2 years, $6 million), Jordin Tootoo (3 years, $5.7 million), and defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo (2 years, $5 million) to multi-year contracts. The latter two were bought out, with Samuelsson playing a combined 30 games scoring one goals and four points. Blunders stretch back to the pre-salary cap era as well, with Derian Hatcher (5 years, $30 million) and Uwe Krupp (4 years, $16.4 million) not panning out on the back end. They combined for three goals and ten points in 45 total games played.

Short Term Hits

For every blunder, there have been some short-term hits for General Manager Ken Holland as well. Winger Daniel Alfredsson (1-year, $5.5 million AAV), though it was for one season, had 18 goals and 49 points to tie for the team lead as a 41-year old. Winger Todd Bertuzzi turned a one-year, $1.5 million flyer at 34 years old into an 18-goal, 44 point season. This earned him a couple more contracts to end his career as a Red Wing. Slovak forward Marian Hossa (1-year, $7.5 million), at that time a Cup hunter, scored 40 goals in his lone season. He remains the last Detroit forward to do so.

Former 11th overall pick Dan Cleary signed a one-year deal (go with me on this one) in 2005, re-signed on a two-year pact the next off-season and responded with two of three 20+ goal campaigns he would have in his tenure with Detroit. Of course, everyone remembers the unfair summer Brett Hull (2 years, $9 million) and Luc Robitaille (2 years, $8 million) were reeled in to win a Stanley Cup with one of the best teams of all time. Each scored 30 goals in their Detroit tenures with the former doing it twice.

However, one signing stands above the rest as the best the franchise has made in its 90-year history.

The All-Time Best Detroit Red Wings Free Agent Signing

2007 – Brian Rafalski: Five Years, $30 million ($6 million AAV)

The Player:

After a one-year stop in the USHL suiting up for the in-state Madison Capitols potting 12 goals and 23 points, Rafalski committed to the University of Wisconsin for the 1991-92 season to play for head coach Jeff Sauer (655 NCAA coaching wins), who had won two National Championships with the school. Through his first three seasons as a Badger however, Rafalski did not show the offensive prowess that many remember him for, netting just nine goals and 55 points through 107 games.

That all changed in his senior year however, as everything seemed to click to the tune of a 11-goal, 45-point campaign suiting up for 43 contests.  He bested his career high for points by 22 markers, earning several accolades that included the WCHA Defensive Player of the Year, First All-Star Team honors, and First All-American Team recognition. Still, he was passed on in North America and decided to take his talents overseas.

European Leagues

His first taste of professional hockey came in the Swedish Elite League and last just 22 contests with Rafalski netting a goal and nine points for Brynas IF Gavle in 1995-96. After bouncing around from the minors to the pros in Sweden, the Dearborn native went next door to Finland to play in Liiga, the top professional League in the country. Now 22, Rafalski was ready to prove himself and did in a three-year stint with HPK Hameenlinna and HIFK Helsinki, potting 53 goals and 111 points in 142 games regular season games earning countless accolades including being named the League’s best defenseman in his first and third campaigns. His 53 points in the third season was tops in Liiga and the most he had at any level of his career up to that point.

Rafalski saved his best hockey for the postseason however, scoring 16 goals and 36 points in just 30 games, the most goals and points in the playoffs by any defenseman all three runs. 1998 would be the first of many victories savored, as he helped Helsinki capture their third ever championship with a dominating six-goal, 11-point performance in nine games.

The Devils Years

Grabbing headlines back home for his work overseas, the now-26-year old Rafalski was signed by the New Jersey Devils in the summer of 1999. Adjusting to the NHL game rather smoothly, he totaled 32 points in his first campaign and added eight in the postseason to help the team win its second Stanley Cup Championship in franchise history. As a follow-up Rafalski, honoring his career’s pattern, got better and better, potting nine goals and 52 points with 22 of them on the power play. The rest of the Devils defense had 25 man advantage points combined.

He added seven markers and 18 points in the postseason, only to fall a game short of a second straight Stanley Cup. Rafalski would eventually get his second ring in 2003 and have quite a successful seven-season tenure with the team, posting four seasons with 45+ points and three seasons of 20+ power play points, including 30 in 2006-07, his contract year.

The Team

The Red Wings weren’t pushovers themselves at the time Rafalski became available in the summer of 2007. They were just coming off a deep playoff run that saw them come two games away from an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final and their 7th straight season of 100 or more points. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg were in the primes of their careers and the blueline had just captured its eighth Norris Trophy combined as Nicklas Lidstrom won his fifth in six years with a 13-goal, 62-point season.

There were some holes to be filled however, as defensemen Danny Markov and Mathieu Schneider, the latter being a key contributor on the team’s power play, were lost to free agency. The 37-year old Schneider was a vital offensive piece playing with Lidstrom, scoring 11 goals and 52 points in ’06-07, including 31 power play points. It was his second consecutive 50+ point season and third straight 20+ power play point campaign coming after a 21-goal 2005-06 season. The dynamic man advantage duo combined for 64 points 5v4 that season and 184 points from ’03-07, always one-two in terms of Detroit defenders on the scoresheet.

The Deal

Schneider’s departure was not going to be an easy fix. Therefore, Detroit looked to the market to see if they could pick up an experienced blue liner that could play on the power play and accept the role of playing with one of the best defensemen in the history of the game. Keep in mind that the League was two years into the salary cap era and many teams were still adjusting, including the Red Wings. Even then they were look for an experienced, right-handed shot that could complement their abundance of left handers.

Chelios was the lone one the team possessed and even with his unbelievable longevity, he played 18:07 per game in 2006-07. Entering a season where he would turn 46 and with the Stanley Cup aspirations the group still had, he couldn’t assume that role of replacing the 23 minutes Schneider logged each night at his age.

Value of Experience

Niklas Kronwall arguably could have been ready to step into a higher role at 26 coming off of a 22-point season, but Holland wanted to make sure that his team would have an experienced offensive dynamo to keep the team’s offense from the blueline potent. Outside of Schneider and Lidstrom who combined for 104 points, Kronwall was the next highest scorer 30 points behind as the rest of the defense core combined for 74 points. To keep the Cup window open, it was clear a big signing was needed. Enter Brian Rafalski.

The Result

Almost immediately, the Wings were reaping the benefits of their newcomer’s offensive game. Not only did Rafalski help Lidstrom win his 6th Norris Trophy in seven years, but he himself broke out for 13 goals to shatter his career high in that department. He also tied his individual mark in points with 55, two more goals and three more points than what Schneider totaled in his final season. The then-34-year old made his mark however on the unit that was his bread and butter, the power play. 10 of his 13 goals came on the man advantage to lead the team and break Rafalski’s own career high. Shooting from 20th in power play efficiency the previous season to 3rd in 2007-08 en route to capturing the team’s fourth Presidents’ Trophy in six years with 54 wins, he was bringing everything the Wings could have hoped for and more.

The Stanley Cup

A bonus that came with the signing was Rafalski’s two Stanley Cup rings and 102 games of playoff experience heading into 2008’s tournament. Logging nearly 25 minutes per night, he totaled four goals to lead the defense and 14 points, one behind the emerging Kronwall. Three of his markers came in the last two rounds against Dallas and Pittsburgh, with two coming in the Final. Many remember Game 5, when the Red Wings had a chance to win the Cup on home ice after taking a huge victory in Mellon Arena the game before. Rallying back from a 2-0 deficit and overwhelming the inexperienced Penguins, Rafalski put the Wings ahead in the third period with 10:37 to go. He celebrated like anyone would knowing he could have won the game. This would give his team, his teammates, and a struggling city the Stanley Cup.

Detroit would go on to lose Game 5 in a triple-overtime thriller, but Rafalski had the ice breaker in Game 6 on the power play. He got a tired and heartbroken bunch off and running. They would go on to win that night, capturing the franchise’s 11th title. It was also the third for Dearborn’s own in his first season with his hometown team.

The Following Years

Though the Wings did not win another title the remainder of his contract, Rafalski brought consistent success year in and year out. The following year, he had his second consecutive double-digit goal campaign and set a career high for points with 59. Coming within a game of repeating as Stanley Cup Champions, he provided another strong playoff performance with three power play goals and 12 points. The next two seasons saw back-to-back 40+ point and 15+ power play point years. The consistency he showed that throughout his 11-year career saw him have just two seasons below 40 points.

Legacy

After helping Lidstrom win his last Norris Trophy in 2011, the wear and tear finally got to Rafalski. He was forced to a retire a year before his contract expired due to nagging back and knee injuries. However, unlike another recent early retirement, this did not hurt the Wings cap situation. His $6 million cap hit was cleared due to his deal being signed before the age of 35.

“This was probably the most challenging season of my career, both physically, mentally and spiritually, but it was also the most rewarding and most blessed. The decision was made between myself and my wife approximately two months ago. We went through a long process of weighing different factors in our lives. At the end of the day it came down to priorities, with the top three priorities being serving God, serving my family and serving others.”
-Brian Rafalski

Father Time Catches the Wings

Rafalski’s retirement was the first sign of Father Time catching up with the team. A year after he announced his retirement, Lidstrom soon followed. This left the Wings with two gaping holes that have yet to be effectively filled. Holland and former head coach Mike Babcock offered their praise the day he hung up the skates.

“I’m not sure we win the Cup in ’08 without Brian Rafalski. He’s been great for us.”
-Ken Holland

“He was an elite, elite player. When we were fortunate enough to sign him, it gave us new life immediately.”
-Mike Babcock

Following his Departure

Since Rafalski’s departure, the Red Wings have been fighting to get into the postseason and have not lasted long despite extending the tired playoff streak, bowing out in the first round four of the past five seasons, including the last three. Mike Green has been a lift for the team offensively as a right-handed shot leading the group in scoring (and power play points) last season, but without the potency that the team possessed when Rafalski stepped in, his impact felt minor at best. 11 years after it was implemented, it seems like the salary cap era has finally caught up to Detroit. This summer they work to retool their team up front and on defense.

This era could have happened a bit sooner if not for the instant impact and benefit of Rafalski. This makes him the best free agent signing the team has made in its history.

Quotes Courtesy of Detroit Free Press

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